When we think of bullying, we’re usually worrying about our school-age kids or remembering bad experiences from high school.
We learn quickly in the health care field that bullies don’t change once they enter the clinical world. Health care, with its incredible differential in knowledge, authority and pay creates large power differentials and easily generates subordinate/superior relationship dynamics.
Bullying occurs within professions between trainees and trainers and faculty, and across clinical areas when there are knowledge differences such as between specialists and primary care. Mistreatment also frequently occurs in an interdisciplinary manner between physicians and non-physicians, supervisors and direct reports, nurses, and technicians.
For many (bully and bullied alike), this has been considered the price of entry into the healthcare arena.
The fears generated by the power differentials are very real:
- loss of one’s job
- loss of referrals
- loss of business to a competitor
Through trial and error, bullies find the right formula to preserve the power dynamics.
These unspoken fears create a culture of silence. It then becomes very difficult to achieve a culture of high reliability, which operates on a framework of deference to everyone’s expertise with an intense preoccupation with avoiding errors and failure. I have seen this culture of silence lead to OR fires and use of new OR equipment and procedures without adequate training or supervision.
An organization-wide “anti-bullying statement” should stop the problem, right? Not likely. An organization where I once served in administration had such a statement but also had a “hidden agenda,” i.e., ‘”We need these doctors to bring in business and need these nurses’ experience.” It led to confusion as to what the organization would stand for. Staff began accepting physician rounding at 10 p.m. and used equipment in the OR without proper training.
Working with the medical staff leadership, we opened some honest conversations around patient safety. Both groups were surprised. The medical staff thought administration was OK with the unsafe behaviors; the administration team hadn’t even been made aware of them until that point.
Having a policy against disruptive physicians and nurses is a Band-Aid for a much deeper issue. Many physicians rightly resent the implication that a legitimate disagreement with another healthcare professional can immediately and irrevocably label one “disruptive” without a fair hearing. Stories of false accusations fuel the need for physicians to protect each other, to the detriment of improving the system.
There are more effective ways to address this complex problem. Those on the “wrong side” of the power differential need scripting to defuse the confrontation. For example, a nurse being yelling at by a physician about being paged at 2:00 a.m. regarding “non-urgent orders” could neutralize the situation by calling attention to the behavior, while still allowing an escape route for de-escalation by saying “It sounds like you are having a bad night. Are you yelling at me or simply venting?” Simple lines like these can empower line staff to safely de-escalate these situations and re-train those on the “right side” of the power differential.
Now, a single physician or nurse practicing scripting won’t be able to implement a culture change. It’s up to medical and nursing officers to establish the expectation that physicians and nurses will learn and apply such tools.
Medical staff officers must enlighten clinicians on how a culture of fear leads to more complications and patient harm. Medical errors occur when the safety systems designed to catch an error before it reaches a patient are short-circuited, which is commonplace if physicians give in to the doctor yelling the loudest.
Research from the Vanderbilt Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy in Patient Advocacy Reporting System (PARS) and Co-Worker Observation Reporting System (CORS) databases supports the notion that truly disruptive physicians are the minority and can be identified by staff and patient complaints. It further validates the potentially adverse outcomes and unsafe environment physician bullies perpetuate.
Their research also shows that “what gets measured, matters” as these “disruptive providers” don’t always need to be reported to NPDB. Some physicians simply need to understand that their behavior, though considered acceptable in past generations, needs to change.
With new scripting to manage an increasingly difficult health care environment and clear expectations laid out by medical staff officers, it’s entirely reasonable to expect the same zero tolerance for bullying in health care environments that now exists in our children’s schools.